After watching the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg yesterday, which was won by Team Penske driver Juan Montoya; I talked to a couple of friends about the race, scanned social media, thought about what I had watched – and still wasn’t sure what I thought about what had just transpired. Let’s just say it was a mixed bag for me.
It appears that a lot of the fears of the aero kits may have come to fruition. Many predicted that street courses would become “festivals of carbon fiber”; with apologies to our friend Pressdog, who coined the phrase. Based on the first half of the race, that’s exactly what it was.
Others have worried that the close racing that we enjoyed for the past three years with the DW12, would be lost with these new aero kits. It’s hard to say after one race, but there are already some indications that may be the case. Will Power said after the race that the new bodywork makes it extremely difficult to get close to pass.
Another concern was that one manufacturer would have a distinct advantage over the other. After wondering if Honda was sandbagging at the open test a couple of weeks ago at Barber Motorsports Park – I am wondering no more. I am now declaring Chevy the early leader in the development of the aero kits. The results pretty well mirrored what we saw at Barber for both days; with the highest finishing position for Honda being seventh and placing only three Hondas in the Top-Ten. There is no sugar-coating it. If I’m a Honda team, I am now officially worried.
The streets of St. Petersburg are nothing like the undulating road course at Barber. Yet, the results were pretty much the same at both venues. Word has it that Honda is focused exclusively on the Indianapolis 500 and is conceding the rest of the season. I don’t buy that for a minute. Yes, the Indianapolis 500 is the crown jewel – but only one team will win that. Nine of the last fifteen Indianapolis 500’s have been won by either Penske or Ganassi. The odds are good that one of those two will win it again this year – and they both run Chevys. If Honda’s focus is Indianapolis, and they come up short – they have a lot of explaining to do to their teams.
We are constantly reminded that Chevy and Honda took totally different paths with their respective designs of the aero kits. There is such a thing as outsmarting one’s self. It appears that Honda took the complicated approach with too many variables available to the teams. On the pre-race show, Jon Beekhuis pointed out that there are up to a million different aero combinations that a team can choose in setting up a car. Seriously?
Chevy, on the other hand, seems to have taken the KISS approach (Keep It Simple, Stupid). There are fewer options and, consequently, fewer ways to screw it up.
Admittedly, I applauded Honda’s design when I first saw it. It looked like they had put a lot of thought into their design, while the Chevy kit simply looked like they had just stuck a few winglets in odd places. That shows what I know.
I also thought that the raised winglets that looked like T’s on each front wing looked like they were asking to be knocked off. Although several T’s were casualties in yesterday’s race, the Chevy teams were generally able to continue with damaged wings. Whenever a Honda front-wing was damaged, all of the layered louvers seemed to disintegrate within a couple of laps after contact.
Journalists are not supposed to show favoritism, but since bloggers are not journalists – we can get away with it. I was pulling for Honda and still am. Chevy has bailed on open-wheel racing twice in the past two decades. They left CART after the 1993 season after being soundly beaten by Ford, then Honda chased them out of this series after the 2005 season. Honda has been a loyal supporter of the series and I shudder to think where the series would be, had they not stepped up and supplied the entire field from 2006 through 2011. Plus, except for a three-year period that I regret, I’ve always had at least one Honda (sometimes more) in my garage since 1981. So to say I’m pulling for them to succeed is an understatement.
But if I owned an IndyCar team, I would be very worried right now if I had aligned myself with Honda – based on what I saw yesterday. I am not an engineer, nor do I know anything about aerodynamics. But I do know stat sheets and they don’t lie. The Hondas are chasing the Chevys.
The Honda-Chevy battle was not the only disparity in yesterday’s race. I’m an unapologetic fan of Team Penske and want them to win the championship. But yesterday was a case of the Penskes and everyone else. Had it not been for Tony Kanaan spoiling their party, they would have swept the top four spots – just as they did in qualifying.
Does anyone remember the 2009 season? That was the year that the “red cars” of Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing won all but one of the seventeen races. Except for Watkins Glen, which was won by Justin Wilson for Dale Coyne, each race and the championship was a battle between the two red and white Marlboro cars of Team Penske (sometimes another entry driven by Will Power) and the two Target cars of Ganassi. As someone pointed out here the other day – it was one of the most boring seasons in history.
Based on what we saw yesterday, this season could be worse. This championship could very easily come down to a battle between all four drivers within Team Penske. Everyone else could be racing for best in class.
Even though I have been a lifelong fan of Team Penske; I don’t want that. The combination of Team Penske always being one of the top teams in the sport, having possibly the top four drivers on their team and being aligned with Chevy could prove insurmountable for the other teams. I hope I am wrong. That could be a pivotal blow for a series that needs intrigue and excitement in the worst way. It’ll be hard for the die-hards to tune in each week to watch four drivers on one team challenge for the win, while the other teams are left to fight for the scraps of fifth place and below. That is not what I call “must see TV”.
Aside from slight contact that sent a lot of carbon-fiber pieces flying, and a fairly interesting duel at the end between Will Power, who dominated most of the race, and the ultimate winner Juan Montoya – this was not edge-of-your-seat competition. That’s a shame, because after a seven month offseason and the debut of the aero kits – I was probably more excited about this season-opener than I had been in years. But after the novelty of the new kits wore off, most of the race sort of left me flat. Here’s hoping things vastly improve at NOLA.
TV (& Radio) Coverage: After the defection of some of the ABC/ESPN broadcasting team to FOX, it would be easy to understand if ESPN’s coverage dipped in quality. But Allen Bestwick stayed, and that’s a good thing. I’m not going to say that Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever were the best ever, but Bestwick’s presence has brought them to a higher level. But I would say that the ESPN IndyCar pit crew improved over last year.
Rick De Bruhl is solid and has now been around since the 2010 season, so we viewers have gotten comfortable with him, He is the lone holdover from last year’s team that also included Jamie Little and Vince Welch. I had no problem with either of them, but the addition of Dr. Jerry Punch and Jon Beekhuis is a big improvement in my book.
Dr. Punch has been a fixture on their Indianapolis 500 coverage since the late eighties and is one of the best, in my opinion. Jon Beekhuis brings a very technical approach to each broadcast and has the unique ability to put things in layman terms, where even people like me can understand what he is trying to say.
That brings us to yesterday’s broadcast, where Beekhuis did an exemplary job in describing the differences in the aero kits. That segment was one of the highlights of the pre-race show.
I will ding Eddie Cheever, however, for using the old cliché of “Catching Montoya is one thing. Getting around him is another”. There should be some code among racing analysts that forbids them to ever use that tired old saying. Overall, it was a good start of the season for a network whose overall production used to make me cringe before Bestwick’s arrival.
Speaking of cringing, I watched Friday and Saturday practices, along with qualifying, online. The newly renamed Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network provided the audio feed from the Firestone Studio which was trackside. I could listen to Paul Page all day, but I’ll admit he had a few gaffes. Still, he was a pleasure to listen to. Mark Jaynes, Dave Furst and Jake Query all did a good job. It’s too bad I can’t say the same for Page’s new partner, Davey Hamilton. If you’ll recall, Hamilton has replaced Pippa Mann as the driver analyst, after Pippa did an outstanding job working with Page all of last season. Hamilton has been away from the booth since Mike King did not return after the 2013 season – and it showed. He sounded very rusty, almost as if he had forgotten the Fast Six qualifying format.
But what made me cringe was his grammar. Look, I don’t pretend to be the king of grammar here. There is at least one regular commenter on here, that is more than happy to point out all of my grammatical boo-boo’s. But I’m not representing the series and I’m not paid a dime to do this. Hearing Hamilton say “I seen” about a dozen times, and then talking about how a driver “has broke through” – made my ears begin to hurt. All the while, I kept thinking about how much I missed Pippa’s British accent.
Unending Yellows: On the first lap, there were several carbon-fiber pieces that went flying and landed in precarious positions on the track. Before the field came around, the yellow flag flew so that the pieces could be picked up. Granted there were a couple on the main straightaway, while others were in the Turn Six and Seven area. But why on earth did that become a four-lap caution period?
I’m not sure what you call the guy that marries your niece. Is he my nephew? My nephew-in-law? My niece’s husband? Whatever you call him, he has become quite the IndyCar fan in the past few years. I saw he had a good quote on Twitter yesterday. He has quickly named 2015 as The Year of Debris. I like that. Unfortunately, it may turn out to be quite true.
On most road and street courses, this scattering of debris is likely to be repeated throughout the season, given the fragile wings of the new aero kits. Someone needs to devise a more efficient way to remove the debris from the race course. I see no reason why it should take four laps of yellow to remove a few endplates and winglets from the track surface.
I was glad to hear them say that at one point, a track worker was able to safely go out and retrieve a piece of debris from the straightaway without bringing out another full-course yellow. They need to use that kind of thinking more throughout the season, in order to allow races to develop some type of rhythm.
Please, Make it Stop: This is a repeated rant that I’ve gone off on before, but it was something I had mercifully forgotten about in the offseason. A couple of years ago, I met Michael Young at Barber. He is a genuinely nice guy and I really feel bad for belaboring this topic and bashing him on this.
If the name Michael Young doesn’t ring a bell, he is the one that makes me cringe just before the start of each race by screaming out “Race fans!…Are…You…Ready??????”. It sounds like someone being introduced for The Price Is Right. It gives the entire race day experience a very cheesy feeling, whether you’re at the track or on your couch. There are better and more tasteful ways to introduce the Grand Marshall that will get the crowd more fired up and not leave everyone shaking their heads.
Early Success: Sometimes, teenage drivers experience success very early in their careers and it sets them up for disappointment down the road. You don’t need to look further than Graham Rahal or Marco Andretti for drivers that experienced success in their teen years, only to struggle afterwards.
I can’t help but wonder the same about Sage Karam. He had a Month of May last year that few could even dream of. Had it not been the more famous Kurt Busch earning the praise of those that voted, Karam could have and possibly should have been named Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 2014; by starting thirty-first and finishing ninth as a nineteen year-old.
Karam has had ten months to think about that performance and how easy it seemed. Well, things got tougher on the first day of the open test at Barber, while testing for Ganassi. He crashed and broke his wrist and cracked the tub of his car. He returned to the car last week and started yesterday’s race. He was unspectacular, starting eighteenth and finishing nineteenth. But his most noteworthy moment yesterday was not getting out of Will Power’s way in the waning laps as Power was trying to track down Montoya. It probably did not affect the outcome, but it was still very much a rookie mistake that he will likely learn from.
I think Sage Karam is a great kid with a steady head on his shoulders. I hope he gets several more chances with Ganassi this season. I also hopes he learns as much from his weekend at St. Petersburg as he did last May. If so, he’ll have a great IndyCar career.
Tilting Camera? As we rode along with Simon Pagenaud’s onboard camera, it suddenly tilted down where we could no longer see what was ahead of him, just his hands steering the wheel. Was that on purpose? Do these cameras tilt, as well as rotate? Or did he hit something that jarred the camera and it accidentally tilted on its own? Just curious.
Kanaan’s Strong Start: Last year, crowd favorite Tony Kanaan finished sixth at St. Petersburg in his first outing with Chip Ganassi Racing. From there, things went south for much of the first half of the season. Yesterday he finished third and says he is much more comfortable with his new team. The fact that Kanaan inserted himself into the middle of the Penske juggernaut speaks to how strong a day he had. His full-time Ganassi teammates, Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball, finished fifteenth and eighteenth respectively. Here’s hoping the forty year-old Kanaan can give Team Penske a run for their money this season.
Silent CFH: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed in the first outing for CFH Racing. Their results weren’t horrible. In fact, Luca Filippi had a career-best ninth place finish. The thing is; I’m not quite sure how he did it. He was practically invisible during practice and qualifying. During the race, I’m not sure I ever heard his name called. I only saw his car when it was being passed by others. He seemed destined to finish near the back of the pack. Then suddenly, he was up to twelfth and then finished ninth. It’s the quietest ninth-place finish I’ve ever seen.
Josef Newgarden was slightly disappointing also. Last year, it was not uncommon for him to make it to the final round of Fast Six. This year, with Chevy power and body kit – he started a forgettable tenth and finished twelfth. He had a very ordinary and disappointing day yesterday.
Rahal’s Penalty: Graham Rahal showed the speed I thought we would see out of him. Unfortunately, some of his old personality showed up this weekend as well. Although Rahal showed good speed in practice, he failed to make it out of the first round in qualifying. When he got out of the car, he seemed very agitated with one of his crew members. Then when interviewed, he came across as the whiney Graham we’ve come to know and not love over the years.
In the race, he showed speed and ran as high as a legitimate fifth. He then tangled with a disabled Charlie Kimball and ended up punting Kimball out of his way. It was a questionable call that could have gone either way, but Race Control black-flagged Rahal for a drive-through penalty. When he finally served it, he was heard over his radio saying “They’ll find any way they can to screw me.”
Then Rahal made his biggest mistake. He engaged the crazies on Twitter. One tweet from Rahal read “Love all my haters cause your (sic) clueless. Everyone that knows anything about racing agrees we shouldn’t have been given a penalty”. Just when I think I might be ready to become a Graham Rahal fan…
Andretti’s Mixed Bag: It was a decent day for half of Andretti Autosport. Ryan Hunter-Reay overcame some early problems and was the highest placed Honda, finishing seventh. Likewise, Marco drove a hard race and finished tenth. Simona de Silvestro and Carlos Muñoz didn’t fare so well. They tangled with each other, causing damage to the front wing of Muñoz.
Later, Simona ran into the back of James Jakes and punted him off course, ending his day. Muñoz finished fourteenth, while Simona finished eighteenth in her only confirmed start with Andretti.
All in All: I hate to use the term “mixed bag” for a third time in this post, but that’s what yesterday was for me. I’m a Team Penske fan, so I was happy to see them place four cars in the Top Five. But the way they dominated is not good for the series.
I was excited about the aero kits, but seeing how poorly Honda showed was discouraging – no only as a Honda fan, but as a fan of the series.
When the race was over, I had a strange feeling. I wasn’t quite sure whether I liked what I had seen. I certainly didn’t come away from this opener like I had for the past several years. I feel like the series came away from St. Petersburg with more questions than answers. Hopefully, NOLA will give us some answers in a couple of weeks.